It seems just the other day that I took the double-decker bus from Warden Road to Churchgate in Mumbai to join Hindustan Lever Ltd as a trainee in their newly set-up computer department,” recollects R. Gopalakrishnan in the opening pages of his new book, The Case of the Bonsai Manager—Lessons from Nature on Growing.
By all counts, the ride has been interesting, and the book distils insights from his 31-year journey with the company, which ended with him becoming its vice-chairman.
Many anecdotes are drawn from his subsequent years in the Tata fold. In 1998, when Ratan Tata was restructuring his management, he asked Gopalakrishnan to join the group’s holding company, Tata Sons, as an executive director. Now, as a key member, Gopalakrishnan sits on the boards of several Tata companies. And the company’s $12.1 billion (Rs49,610 crore) takeover of the British steel company, Corus, has meant that the brand he oversees, trusted for more than 140 years in India, is now in the global spotlight.
But for all that, Gopalakrishnan’s own world is small and his life simple. “I don’t say I live in Mumbai, I say I am from Colaba,” he says, smiling. “I live in Cuffe Parade, work at Bombay House in Fort and play at the Bombay Gymkhana Club nearby, all within a five mile radius.” Writing in The Economic Times last year, he reveals how, when he had just arrived in Mumbai from Kolkata, he spent half his first pay cheque—all of Rs250—on the entrance fee for membership of the club, which “took precedence over buying a motorcycle, music system or occasional fine dining.”
Both his passions—the study of management and a regular game of tennis—are 40 years old. It’s an interesting coincidence that the Bombay Gymkhana was founded by a group of Europeans to keep out the natives in 1875, and that very year, a nationalistic entrepreneur called Jamsetjee Nusserwanjee Tata kicked off his foray into power, steel and hotels.
More than a century later, under Ratan Tata’s team-driven style of leadership, the responsibility of running and supervising the Tata Group is shared by a handful of people; Gopalakrishnan is one of them. “Tatas is a real celebration of diversity. It is a mini-India,” he says. “For every observation you make, there’s a counter-observation. You have variety: One day, you talk about power, another, about steel. And the industries are the staples that really matter to people, bijli, ghar, roti.”
As diverse as his colleagues at work are Gopalakrishnan’s gang of tennis partners at the Bombay Gym. Every Sunday for the last four decades, as the rest of Mumbai sleeps off its Saturday night hangovers, an animated bunch of men in immaculate tennis gear gather at daybreak on Court No. 3. Phili Kharas, chairman and managing director of Ecoplast Ltd, a maker of plastic film, is introduced as “our film star” by this group of 10 regulars, some of whom are over 70 years old. He says, “If we don’t play thrice a week, something’s missing from our life.”
Santu Ramchandani, a marine engineer, says: “I play tennis thrice a week, followed by a swim. I also go for a sail on a Sea-Bird with my mariner friends. My system has gotten used to it!” Subodh Choksi, an accountant, is labelled the Murlidharan of the group, after the crafty Sri Lankan leg-spinner, because nobody knows how he can hold the racket the same way for his forehand and backhand. He reveals: “Gopal is so devoted that even when he was stationed in Saudi Arabia, his secretary would call up in advance and fix a game for a forthcoming trip to Bombay.”
For radiologist Dr Ramachandra Rao, playing tennis is a family tradition going back to his grandfather; his mother, Malati Rao, played well into her 70s, and was a legend on the Willingdon Club courts in her billowing sari. What draws the gang to this ritual? The medical man explains: “We never need to pop pills and we never get depressed. The game has taught us that one day you win, the next day you lose—that’s life. And when we come here, we forget what we are in the outside world. We can argue and curse and be boys.” For Gopalakrishnan—who plays thrice a week, and on other days, swims or plays golf—this regular tryst with sport is actually about learning sportsmanship. “Watching people win or lose, you get to see their true character. I certainly think I’m a better loser because of my game. When you’ve lost the Wimbledon finals, you should be able to come back, give your speech, then go to the locker room and howl if you like. But when you are out, you should be able to say, ‘How well you played, my opponent, you deserved to win the match’.”
Life is the art of the graceful comeback, as he reveals in his book. World-class tennis players and managers play their best shots when they follow their intuition, as they listen to the hidden nuances of their surroundings and translate these into right actions. Going out to meet customers means different things to different chief executive officers: a ‘trucking centre’ for a truck maker, neighbourhood grocery stores for an FMCG player, farmer hang-outs for an agro-inputs’ marketer. For all, though, says Gopalakrishnan, as in tennis, it means the ‘three Ss’—sweaty, sticky stuff.
He recalls how the chairman of Hindustan Lever Ltd (now Hindustan Unilever Ltd) has always gone to the field to learn what customers need. When Tata Engineering’s design team got out of laboratories and behind the wheel, it realized a home truth. To manage their economics, truck drivers were carrying heavier loads. Through a study of overloading patterns and the direct involvement of an operator, the company mounted the ‘Kulbir Singh Project’ to produce an axle of greater value to its customers. The outcome: The company made a remarkable turnaround after a period of losses, and, says Gopalakrishnan, “This came out of careful listening during intensive customer visits”.
Ashok Ganguly, a former chairman at Lever, says, “You would expect Gopal to always look at an issue sensitively and creatively, rather than only from an utilitarian angle.”
For a long time, the Tata brand was viewed as just that: good, old and “utilitarian”. Today, it has a buzz, with some of India’s most famous personalities from the sports and entertainment fields endorsing its products and services, including Narayan Karthikeyan, Sourav Ganguly and Sania Mirza. Says Ishaat Hussain, finance director, Tata Sons: “Gopal is very much responsible for the Tata brand. He’s very much the creative thinker. When we are in a meeting, he’s the one who comes up with an idea that breaks the stalemate.”
On the Sunday after the book launch, tennis game done, K.K. Mehra, a sprightly octogenarian and a Punjab University Blue in three sports in 1935, stopped the author in the club. “Congratulations, Bonsai Manager! I really enjoyed your presentation at the Taj Mahal Hotel,” he said. “The snacks were very good.” He added as an afterthought: “I’m sure your book must be as good as your tennis. In all the years I’ve known you, I never realized you were so clever.”
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